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Chris Waddle interview: When the stars shone in blue and white – The chords sealed in time for Owls icon

 

In terms of the greatest to ever wear the Sheffield Wednesday shirt, Chris Waddle is the leading choice for many who were blessed with his sparkling play, and the former England winger uncovers the soundtrack to a time when Owls fans very nearly had to dream no more.

One of the longest-standing and most recognisable clubs in English football history, there have been more struggles than successes for Wednesday since relegation from the Premier League in 2000. Supporters have long grown tired of hearing about the well-documented decline, but with the current team in the top half of the Championship and a takeover now announced, there is reason to look back on the revered side of the early 90s with a little bit more hope for the future than has often been the case in the last 15 years.

While some very noteworthy players had worn the Owls badge before them, the group responsible for the 1991 League Cup glory and appearances in the FA Cup and League Cup finals of 1993 are rightly remembered with incredible fondness. The truest entertainer of that era for Wednesdayites arrived in South Yorkshire in July 1992 after three extremely successful years with Olympique de Marseille.

31-year-old Chris Waddle had already enjoyed a terrific career, winning 62 England caps, going to two World Cups and a European Championship, and playing in the European Cup final. With his stay in France coming to an end, the ex-Tottenham Hotspur man was coming home, and of all his potential suitors it was a Wednesday side who’d just finished 3rd in the top flight who stood out.

“I remember playing against Wednesday for Newcastle and I always thought they were similar clubs in that they didn’t win enough for the support they had,” he recalled. “I used to look at Wednesday’s results and when I was coming back to England from Marseille everyone probably thought I was going back to the North East.

“I spoke to Newcastle, but they were ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’, so I wasn’t that bothered about going back there. Your first move away is your hardest, and I’d left when I was 24 and been to Spurs and Marseille, so I wasn’t worried about moving to a different part of the country.

“I had the option of Leeds, and Aston Villa and Blackburn were rumoured, but I wasn’t the biggest fan of how (Leeds manager at the time) Howard Wilkinson played. I was 31 and I wanted to enjoy my football.

“I’d watched Wednesday on TV when I was in France and I thought they passed it well and I could fit into the team – it wasn’t as hard a decision as people thought. We had over 30,000 turning up at Hillsborough and apart from winning a trophy it couldn’t have gone better.

“Teams didn’t enjoy playing against us and it was a great time.”

Even with all that people could discuss with Chris, he describes how his ‘Diamond Lights’ duet with Spurs and England teammate Glenn Hoddle in 1987 is still in the top three most frequent questions he gets asked. Music is an undeniable part of his persona and players from around the world have discussed its role in their life and career on here in the past four years, including two of Chris’s one-time Owls colleagues – midfielders John Harkes and Chris Bart-Williams.

Chris enchanted Wednesdayites everywhere with his form en route to both domestic cup finals in his debut season and he reveals how far removed from the pre-game dressing room scene of today’s teams it was back then.

“At Wednesday, we always seemed to have Simply Red playing on the bus; I think that was the only cassette we had! Some lads brought on headphones but we weren’t like Wimbledon who had music blasting out of the changing room.

“A lot of managers didn’t believe in it in the changing room and what they said went. It was different to nowadays where they have to keep the players happy.”

The kind of player Owls fans have longed for ever since, Chris had four full seasons in S6 but four trips to Wembley in 1992/93 meant his first campaign was pretty difficult to match. That quartet of visits to the famous Twin Towers comprised an FA Cup semi-final win over Sheffield United, a draw in the final with Arsenal and defeat in the subsequent replay, and a League Cup final loss, again to the Gunners.

Popular American international John Harkes was around for each of those clashes and he opened the scoring in the League Cup final before Paul Merson and Steve Morrow sealed the match for George Graham’s Arsenal. The midfielder shared plenty from his Wednesday days in his music/football interview on here in March 2013, including memories of living in Stannington and the day Chris was showing off his football skills in the studio yard as the players prepared for a TV appearance.

The former United States captain also revealed how left-back Phil King loved to burst into song, as well as how Nigel Pearson and Carlton Palmer would throw their music choices into the mix for the team on occasions.

Chris casts his mind back to some of the notable characters in the ranks back then, recalling the varying genres they favoured.

“John Harkes liked his music, John Sheridan was a big Barry White fan, Viv Anderson loved the Rolling Stones, and Chris Bart-Williams was into all the groups I’d never heard of and still can’t pronounce now.”

Before Rickie Lambert had even been born, Chris had already made the transition from factory worker to professional footballer, stepping up from Tow Law Town in his native North East to join Newcastle United in 1980. Although a boyhood supporter of arch rivals Sunderland, he reached the highest division with the Magpies and was capped by his country for the first time (against Ireland in 1985).

In that sublime way that the best artists can bring lyrics to life, Chris could make the game something mesmeric and magnificent. The balance, the change of direction, the vision and the execution he was capable of were perfect examples of footballing poetry.

The parallels between football and music are far from lost on him, so when it came to the latter, who were the performers who lit his fire?

“Growing up with two older brothers, I was last choice for the record player but music was a constant in the house. I grew up listening to bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, the Groundhogs, and Uriah Heep.

“The first concert I went to was Status Quo at Newcastle City Hall and I really enjoyed it. When I was 12 or 13, I started to get into the glam rock bands like Slade and Sweet.

“‘Block Buster!’ and ‘The Ballroom Blitz’ were (Sweet) songs I remember listening to when my brothers had left home and I had the record player to myself. They were probably the first records I ever bought, or maybe one like ‘Cum On Feel the Noize’(by Slade).

“I was also into new wave and punk and I was really into The Jam. If I had to name a favourite band I’d probably go with them.

“I’ve been quite lucky with the gigs I’ve seen. I saw The Jam many times, Elton John, Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart, The Who, Simply Red.

“I saw Deacon Blue live for the first time nine months ago, saw Kasabian before Christmas, and I got to see Queen and Elton John when I was in Ukraine commentating for the Euros (in 2012).”

 

 

At 25, Chris wore the Three Lions at a major tournament for the first time as England were halted at the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup by Argentina in Mexico. Diego Maradona had already provided both the illegal and the improbable with his two goals by the time Chris entered the action in front of over 114,000 at the Estadio Azteca. Gary Lineker’s late consolation was merely that, although Chris did have the next two tournaments to look forward to with Bobby Robson’s team.

First-round elimination in Euro ’88 was nothing to write home from Germany about, but it was England’s 1990 World Cup run to the semi-final that captured hearts and minds. From the last-gasp David Platt volley against Belgium, to shootout heartbreak against West Germany, the tournament certainly served up the agony and the ecstasy for England.

Chris may have been unsuccessful with his penalty in the semi, as was Stuart Pearce, but the class of ’90 are still held in resoundingly high regard. That edition of the global showpiece also spawned the gem of all World Cup songs – New Order and the England team’s ‘World in Motion’.

Various pieces of footage have provided a look behind the scenes of those weeks in Italy for the England camp, but was music ever played in the build-up to the games, or on many other occasions in Chris’s international career?

“Not in the changing room; sometimes on the coach, but Bobby wouldn’t stand for ‘crash, bang, wallop’ sort of stuff. You couldn’t really stick the Sex Pistols on but every team seemed to have Phil Collins or Hall & Oates on the cassette players!

“Any music came from your room really, and in World Cups, boredom set in and we’d do daft things to keep us occupied. The 1990 World Cup trip was seven or eight weeks and it flew because everyone got on.

“I’ve still got a gold disc from ‘World in Motion’.”

After starting each of England’s games at Italia ’90 (barring the third-place play-off defeat to the hosts), Chris found his opportunities severely limited once Graham Taylor replaced Sir Bobby Robson as manager. As the national team crashed out of the group at Euro ’92, he had to watch at home on TV, which was all the more surprising given his club form with Marseille.

Moving to the Stade Vélodrome for £4.5million in 1989 made Chris the third-most expensive footballer in the world and he felt the intense scrutiny from the outset. He was initially living in a hotel while also trying to contend with the club cramming the pre-season training he’d missed into a short space of time, and amid searing daytime heat.

He was to be a big success however, scoring a classy backheel against Paris Saint-Germain in the opening weeks and never looking back from there on in. Such was the adoration for Chris that he would be frequently issued parking tickets that were merely kept as souvenirs after he’d signed them, while he was spared the fine.

There was a European Cup final (which ended in a shootout defeat to Red Star Belgrade), three domestic league titles, as well as the odd beer with teammate Eric Cantona who arrived at training sessions on his Harley-Davidson. It is little wonder Chris describes his spell there as ‘like living on Fantasy Island’!

In addition to the release of ‘We’ve Got a Feeling’, a collaboration with France defender and Marseille counterpart Basile Boli, music managed to both soothe and inspire Chris during his spell in the picturesque south of France.

“At Marseille, we played in the evening, so during the day I’d lie in the villa with my headphones in and have a sleep before the game. We had Van Halen ‘Jump’ on at the stadium to get the crowd going when we came out, so I quite liked that.”

 

 

While at Tottenham, Chris lived in Hertfordshire, away from the London spotlight. As someone who has performed in tournament finals and World Cups, not to mention Top of the Pops, he recalls a separate instance when he was a tad shaky, although some of it was intentional.

At Spurs, you had to get up and sing at the Christmas party, so I went in fancy dress as Elvis. I sang ‘Suspicious Minds’ with this black wig on and it was as nerve-wracking as running out for your debut!

“I was never born to be a professional singer so anything like ‘Diamond Lights’ was just good fun. We all used to have a go at karaoke and would sing something like Bon Jovi.

“With phones now wherever you go it’s a bit embarrassing when you hear yourself back but it’s all part of the fun. It’s when you think you’re a great singer and you get criticism that people can be a bit sensitive.”

It is a telling indication of Sheffield Wednesday’s fortunes in the past couple of decades when you consider that the £1million paid for Chris back in 1992 would be seen as a huge fee for the club to spend nowadays. His time as an Owls player produced moments that are carved into Wednesday history. The 5-0 trouncing of West Ham United in December 1993 will forever be known as ‘The Waddle Game’, as the wing wizard had a hand in four of the goals, finishing one himself as his star shone the brightest in a magnificent team performance at Hillsborough.

There are Wednesdayites who remember that match alongside significant events from their life at that time, and it is as vital a fibre in Owls folklore as the Boxing Day Massacre, the 1993 Wembley encounters, and of course, ‘dink’.

During our conversation, Chris highlighted Glenn Hoddle’s love for The Eagles, but let’s say he was to overlook his former singing partner and return to the studio to record a cover with some from his Hillsborough days. Who would be first on his list?

“I was quite pally with John Harkes and John Sheridan so they’d be the ones I’d do a cover with and I think it would be a Bananarama one – maybe ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting…’!

“We had a very good changing room and that was so important. It didn’t need Trevor Francis to fire bullets because people let you know when you weren’t doing it and we all fought for each other and stuck up for one another.”

For his excellent debut season at Wednesday, Chris was named the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, which was won in the following years by Alan Shearer, Jurgen Klinsmann and Eric Cantona. That 1992/93 campaign at S6 heralded a 7th-place berth in the top flight, and although the Steel City derby free-kick is most cherished, Chris struck again at Wembley with his equaliser in the FA Cup final replay with Arsenal.

Andy Linighan’s winner for the North Londoners in the 119th minute ended Wednesday’s hopes of lifting the trophy and the club still awaits its first date at the new Wembley. The Owls have been steadily building since their promotion to the Championship in 2012 and Stuart Gray’s side currently sit in 10th, with the takeover by Dejphon Chansiri’s Thai consortium announced last week.

The 2014/15 Wednesday are built on solidity and spirit, which may not have yet yielded too many moments to thrill, but the feeling of pride and optimism from supporters is certainly there.  Chris gives his take on the present-day version of a side he remains instantly associated with.

“It’s hard to single players out because I think it’s very much based on the team at Wednesday. I looked at the squad at the start of the season and thought, ‘if they stay up they’ll have done well’.

“Stuart Gray’s done a fantastic job and I think he’s got the team punching above its weight. I do follow the results and I think they’ve got to play to their maximum every week.

“It’s when they come off the pace that some of the other teams in the division have got the individual players to make the difference.”

One player who encapsulated that creative spark Chris alludes to is his former Newcastle, Spurs and England teammate Paul Gascoigne. For all the turmoil that has gone with the one-time midfield magician’s story, there is surely no doubt about the inspiration and happiness his ability and character gave to people once upon a time.

As Chris curled his free-kick beyond the reach of Sheffield United’s Alan Kelly in front of 75,364 at Wembley in the FA Cup semi, Barry Davies proclaimed: “Anything Paul Gascoigne can do, Chris Waddle can do.” Besides their friendship, Chris also used to room with the legendary prankster on away trips, so he is qualified to offer an expert insight.

Like Chris, he also had a little go at a pop career, but was there much of a music side to the ex-England man in his playing days?

“If Gazza liked a tune, he liked it; he wasn’t bothered who sang it or if people ribbed him about it. He actually used to nick my Phil Collins tape and he got into his music for a bit.

“He would have a dance and a laugh with songs but I wouldn’t say he was massively into music. Saying that though, he’d sometimes turn up at some gig and if an Elvis song came on he’d know it nine times out of ten and sing along.

“I think his dad was a big Elvis fan when Gazza was growing up.”

In the last three seasons of Chris’s Wednesday spell, the club achieved another finish of 7th (1993/94), before coming 13th and 15th. Many of the much-loved side gradually moved on and Chris was released in the early stages of the 1996/97 season, eventually joining Falkirk.

There was a reminder of that vintage Waddle mastery as he whipped a long-range stunner over Everton’s Neville Southall for Bradford City in the FA Cup at the age of 36. There was also a move to boyhood team Sunderland, a player-manager role at Burnley, and some time at Torquay United to conclude a distinguished professional career.

Chris returned to Wednesday as reserve team coach from 1999 to 2000, giving him plenty of chance to tell the players about the time he ran a young Paolo Maldini ragged for England! What is certain with him though is the affection he has for The Owls, as well as his love for music, so it is time to combine the two once again.

I asked Chris to envisage it being the summer of 1993, with Wednesday fans in party mood after (let’s pretend) beating Arsenal in both cup finals that year. In this fantasy, Chris is in charge of booking the headliners for a music festival at Hillsborough, and he also has the bonus of being able to choose artists from any era. Think Wayne’s World 2, but swap ‘Waynestock’ for ‘Waddlestock’.

“I’d like to see Phil Collins, but to sell out the stadium and appeal to a younger audience, probably Eminem – even though I couldn’t sit through one of his gigs – and Oasis. Bon Jovi always sell gigs out and give value for money, whether people like them or not.

“Bands like The Who, people like David Bowie, they don’t stay around for decades through luck. It’s like the footballer who thinks he’s cracked it; you’ve got to strive to be better to stay around.”

Among Chris’s current endeavours, he is supporting the Bakewell-based charity Helen’s Trust, which provides support for those who are terminally ill. He remains a prestigious name in English football and alongside everything else he achieved he gave all those who love Sheffield Wednesday an icon to adore.

As fans, we always like to think of our club as the best, no matter how far away from the top we really are. With the likes of Chris in the team though, that was very nearly true of Wednesday, and the quality of football and memories produced in that dazzling era are never forgotten.

The times you long for as a supporter, the moments when time stops and that flood of emotion arrives as you realise it’s your club on the big stage, no longer just looking on at someone else’s cup final. That was the Wednesday of those golden days; when it was more Sega and Street Fighter ads than betting firms, and the likes of Chris, Roland Nilsson, David Hirst and the others mixed it with the very best of them.

 

 

The feeling of hope as Chris drove down the wing in the FA Cup final, that finish beyond David Seaman after John Harkes’ cross reached him, or that enduring image of those arms out celebrating as he ran to the Wednesday fans after a certain derby day free-kick. Memories to last a lifetime for those who dream in blue and white.

It is over to the man himself to round off the interview as he selects four of his former Owls teammates to join him in a 5-a-side line up. I also gave him one sub to pick, with the only rule being that he had to have worked with him at a separate club or for England. Take it away, Mr. Waddle.

“In goal: Chris Woods – he played more than Pressy (Kevin Pressman) at that time. 5-a-side is probably better for Chris because his kicking wasn’t the best; his kicks always seemed to end up on my head!

“Viv Anderson at the back – he was like a daddy longlegs; just when you thought you’d got past him he’d somehow manage to stop you.  His talking and banter was excellent.

“I’d have John Sheridan in midfield – he used to preach about not giving the ball away. Up front, Brighty (Mark Bright) had a great couple of years or so but if Hirsty (David Hirst) had stayed fit over the course of his career I think he’d have definitely won a lot more England caps.

“People like Roland Nilsson, Carlton Palmer and the ones who didn’t get in are very unlucky. I could pick three or four 5-a-side teams from Wednesday.

“There’s people like Gazza, Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley, but the one I’d choose (as a super sub) is Glenn Hoddle. I loved the way he played, so it’s not just for his singing!

“When I was playing non-league I used to watch him on TV. Glenn was like a quarterback and he had unbelievable technique; I learned more about my passing from playing with him.

“That’s my team, and I think with all of us in our prime and in a 5-a-side tournament, we’d cause a few problems.”

Follow me on Twitter (@chris_brookes) and catch each one of these interviews in future

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